By Aliza Goldberg
On June 7, Argentina's soccer team scored not only two winning goals against Slovenia, but also a major victory in raising political awareness. Before the game, the team unfurled a sky blue banner with white contours of the Falkland Islands that read, "Las Malvinas Son Argentinas” (The Falkland Islands Are Argentine). The action vocalized Argentine frustrations with the British ownership of the Islands.
Pablo Pinto, a Columbia University professor at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, describes a consistent link between sports and politics. For decades, soccer has never been just an athletic game: "groups of violent fans, called 'barras bravas' in Argentina are recruited for political rallies and other activities," often resulting in violence, and the "government's involvement in the broadcast of soccer games" through monetary aid.
The decision to publicize the island dispute, 32 years after the battle between Argentina and England, comes as no surprise. Vice President of Tel Aviv University and Latin American professor, Raanan Rein, remembers similar political actions during the 1948 Olympics, the 1952 Olympics, and the 1978 World Cup. But this time, “it’s done in a blunt way.”
British concerns over political tension spilling onto the field arose during the 1982 World Cup, according to The Guardian. Diplomat Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox warned that the political turmoil "could well inflame the feelings of supporters (not necessarily only British)" during matches. But Rein disagrees: "I do not believe that this kind of declaration about the Falkland Islands should create a stir during the World Cup games. FIFA's decision to begin disciplinary proceedings due to the players' protest should put an end to this issue."
Before Argentina's first World Cup match, FIFA announced on June 13 that it would punish the Argentina Football Association for violating FIFA's rules regarding "provocative and aggressive actions" and "team misconduct."
Argentina plays again on June 21 and 25–with FIFA's decision weighing on the team, it is unclear whether it will make any additional political statement in Brazil.
If the Argentine soccer team's banner does make its way from La Plata to Brazil, though, Alejandro M. Garro, an Argentine lawyer, questions whether "the city government of Rio de Janeiro would be able to censor them." Notably, the team did not repeat their political action on June 15 when they played their first World Cup match against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Some Argentines hope the national team does bring politics to Brazil in later matches. Shimon Braun, an Argentine business entrepreneur points to geography, arguing that "the land is near Argentina and not England."
Mijal Minz, a retired teacher living in Buenos Aires, also feels that Argentina has been robbed of the Islands: "If for 200 years a country takes your government by force, you would try to reclaim what was your country because it was stolen. One must do everything possible to reclaim it, including through soccer."
The Argentine government encourages the politicization of soccer, even if FIFA doesn't. Pablo Pinto argues many Argentine soccer jerseys, tournaments, and stadiums reference the Falkland Islands, implicitly and explicitly.
The link between soccer and politics does not seem as prevalent in England. British soccer fan Kenneth Corfield has not heard any English players commenting on the Falkland Islands or Argentina's banner. He says, "They just want to play football, even though they are not very good at it."
Corfield does not know why England would bother claiming the Falkland Islands, but references "one 19th-century British Imperialist who once said that Britain obtained its empire 'in a fit of absence of mind'. I especially hope there isn't another war," Corfield continues, "as it might keep Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta from playing for MCFC (Manchester City Football Club), and that would be terrible."
Aside from Argentine players on British sports teams, Argentina has lost the economic benefits of the Islands. Given England’s usurpation of the Island's agricultural and natural resources, Argentines like Minz consider England a "pirate country." If Argentina should play England in the World Cup, such sentiments will become more prominent in the media.
Aliza Goldberg is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
[Photo courtesy of Compfight]